Rural Employment Guarantee- Utopia or Real

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) ensures job for at least 100 days a year for one member of all the rural households, if demanded.

To celebrate the entry of the crown prince as the general secretary of Congress Party en route to reach at the prime ministerial chair in the next election, Sonia Gandhi’s party staged a political and media savvy drama to build an aam aadami -oriented image of the crown prince. After the enthronement, the prince went with a group of his sycophants in the party to the prime minister and suggested the extension of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) to all 583 districts of the country. It covered 330 districts in the country with Rs 12,000 crore till now. 253 more districts will mean allocation of additional Rs 6,000-8,000 crore. Within less than 48 hours the government announced the extension.

I have been writing in favour of the project since its inception and wished if more and more agencies could get involved with the scheme to make it transparent and useful for the rural India. It can create huge lot of necessary assets such as social forestry, roads and water bodies for better availability of water all over the year.

If the government could execute the act with professional efficiency and effectiveness, no one in India would go empty stomach for sleep in the whole of the country. However, it has not happened and there is a little hope that it will happen now unless the administration does some bold restructuring. It is unfortunate that the government and the ruling political party assume that with framing of the policy its work is over and its announcements can befool the teeming ignorant millions that serve as vote bank.

The NREGA went operational with 200 districts covered in the first phase in February 2006 and got extended to 130 more districts from April this year.

As claimed, it provided employment to 2.1 crore households in the first phase districts (2006-07) and created 90.5 crore mandays of which more than 60 per cent were SCs and STs and 40 per cent were women.

Initially there was a lot of hue and cry about the resources. No one makes that complains now. The actual expenditure is much less than what it was being estimated. As reported, the allocation for the NREGA for 2006-07 was Rs 11,300 crore (200 districts) and the administration could spend only Rs 8,800 crore. And out of the allocation of Rs 12,000 crore for 2007-08 (330 districts) for this year, the expenditure is likely to touch Rs 10,000 crore.

The NREGA would require around Rs 20,000 crore annually to cover all 595 districts. It is just half of what many experts in economy thought of when the scheme was getting conceived. Rs 20,000 crore is not something that India can’t afford the scheme if it serves the purpose.

The main issues concern its low utilisation, woefully inadequate generation of employment, non-payment of minimum wages, absence of facilities at worksites, lack of sufficient number of useful projects and doubtful asset creations.

The Delhi-based Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) has come out with its second survey on the project implementation under NREGA. The PRIA survey covered 5,300 registered families in 21 districts across 14 states. Conclusions are shocking. A mere six per cent of the households managed the minimum employment of 100 days a year. The rest had either been employed for lesser number of days, or not at all. Many have also complained about non-payment and under-payment.

According to another study, the average days of work provided to rural households eligible under the NREGA was far lower than even 45 a year in most of the 330 districts it now operates in.”

In states like Bihar, the number of person days of work actually done per rural household that demanded work was as low as 18.46.

Many have even poorer views to express. “At least 30 per cent of the funds are wasted or misused. In some cases, the diversion is up to 60 per cent.”

Others contend that in any project, a minimum of 5 per cent of the funds goes to line the pockets of the CEO who oversees the project, 10 per cent goes to the engineering officials, 5 to the zilla panchayat, and another 10 to panchayat officials. The percentages can be much higher in some districts and states. Add to these percentages the fact that in many cases funds are allocated for the same project several times, or shortcuts by the officials lead to shoddy implementation and other irregularities. Overall performance appears to be dismal.

The government with two years experience has hardly reached at some solutions for the overall on-the-ground realities. What are the answers if “workers continue to face payment delays, or are not paid the minimum wages or if in many districts, there are no projects to allocate work”? Can it be believed that with so much of talent in the country, it is not possible to solve these issues?

Unfortunately, there is no dearth of the schemes and programmes to provide employment. The Prime Minister’s Rozgaar Yojana (PMRY) was another one that has been merged with NREGA. The proposed scheme, named Prime Minister’s Employment Generation Programme (PMEGP), will set up 17 lakh entrepreneurial projects generating 1 crore job opportunities during the eleventh plan against the combined PMRY and NREGA target of 43.57 lakh jobs under the ongoing tenth plan. Out of these, 70 lakh jobs are proposed for SC, ST, OBC, minorities and the North-East, according to the concept paper formulated by the Ministry. Will this not mean the end of the poverty from Indian soil very soon?

However, there is at least one positive side of the scheme too. According to estimates, local employment has resulted in cutting down migration of labour by as much as 60% in certain areas.

Will an effective delivery system for this great scheme that could have changed the lives of millions remain a utopian objective? Will the thousands of B-schools in India come out to make this one programme of national importance that is unique in the whole world, succeed?

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